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By Beth Weitzman, with Warren Weitzman | Photo: Courtesy of Rancho La Puerta | August 16, 2016
Disconnect from the digital world, and turn your focus to pumping up your mind, body and workout at Rancho La Puerta, a fitness and spa retreat in the mountains of Baja California.
Back in 1940, when Rancho La Puerta (“the Ranch”) first welcomed guests in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, it did so on a BYOT (bring your own tent) basis for $17.50 a week. For this, pioneering spa-goers enjoyed the striking desert setting, but there was no running water, no electricity, no gym and no swimming pool. Its forward-thinking co-founders, Professor Edmond Szekely and his wife, Deborah Szekely (who would go on to launch the legendary Golden Door spa on her own), were motivated to open the world’s first fitness resort and spa—a place where people became one with nature, their food and themselves. Named Ranch of the Door for the two arching oak-tree “doors” that led to the original Rancho La Puerta campsite, this offering turned out to be the precursor to the modern-day destination-spa concept.
Today, the Ranch, still family owned and operated, hails as one of the top health and wellness spa destinations in North America and far beyond. Each week, up to 140 lucky guests experience its magic (three- and four-day programs also are offered, as well as a new Saturday at the Ranch experience). Eager to join their ranks, my brother and I take the plunge, unplugging from the world to fully immerse in a full week of wellness.
Excited to break from the distractions and stresses of our uberconnected lives, we welcome the idea of bunking in a casita without Wi-Fi, and thus the temptation to log on (although the must-connect set can do so in the communal lounge, where Wi-Fi is available). And like all guest accommodations on property, ours is a TV-free zone—a revelation that fazes neither of us—and it is set amid a beautiful 3,000-acre desert oasis thriving with gardens, mountains and meadows. These vast and beautifully landscaped environs host sculptures, water features and three dozen hammocks for reflecting and relaxing.
En route to our casita, we transition to Ranch mode while breathing in delightfully fragrant aromas of artemisia and sage. Inside, the authentic Mexican design exudes an understated charm, with every comfort—two bedrooms, a living room, a small kitchen-like area and a huge terrace with chaise lounges overlooking Tecate Peak (the site of many popular Ranch hiking trails). The outdoor setting, which stimulates tranquility at every turn, is a peaceful place to unwind with an organic tea and the fruits left for us each day.
Our first meal at the Ranch—and all that follow—is resplendent with fruits and vegetables freshly plucked from Rancho Tres Estrellas, the Ranch’s 6-acre organic farm. Cuisine is semivegetarian, with lacto-ovo dishes also served. Superfresh seafood, culled from the port of Ensenada, Baja California, and hauled in from a local fisherman’s market, is often served in some delicious variation five times a week. Gluten-free diets are easily accommodated. Meals are served in an expansive indoor-outdoor dining room featuring traditional Mexican decor. Not only do we eat well at the Ranch, we also taste foods we normally would have shied away from. Clean yet creative, fresh dishes burst with bold flavors, and we really don’t miss meat at all; in fact, we feel lighter and better without it—along with its friends, processed foods and sugar (the latter is used sparingly). The sheer deliciousness of the food, and the fact that we’re never hungry, blows us away.
Naturally, we take advantage of the Ranch’s instructional kitchen, La Cocina Que Canta, home of Executive Chef Denise Roa, via the 4-mile breakfast hike, which, midway, stops at the venue for a home-cooked breakfast, followed by a garden tour with Head Gardener Salvador Tinajero. We also enjoy the late-afternoon hands-on cooking class, which finds an intimate gathering of students preparing a fabulous meal alongside a renowned guest chef. We take several cooking courses during our stay in hopes of replicating some of these dishes at home. While most guests with weight-loss goals reach them via healthy eating and increased activity at the Ranch, the resort does not consider itself a weight-loss facility. Its mission, rather, centers on helping others achieve overall health and well-being.
A major factor in this grand plan is exercise, with a fitness navigator available to help guests make the most of their visit (during which they have the option of taking 70-plus fitness and mindfulness classes, lectures and lifestyle curricula like arts and crafts). The Ranch also offers the most extensive on-site hiking program of any spa we’ve attended, with guided hikes of varying difficulty on more than 25 miles of wildland trails. For those looking for a challenge, try the Road Runner, a 5-mile lowland trail run, as well as a Seven-Mile Mountain Breakfast Hike that covers 7 miles over steep, rugged mountain terrain filled with breathtaking views.
Knowing we’d like to try it all, we choose loosely guided plans of action, including some unfamiliar activities like Feldenkrais and NIA (neuromuscular integrative action), along with more familiar fitness disciplines such as TRX and interval training. Prior to classes—about five are offered every hour from 9am to 4pm each day—guests head out on the aforementioned hikes, which set off in the early-morning hours for perfect-temp treks. With approximately 20 full-time and guest instructors, the Ranch rolls out a full roster for all fitness abilities and various needs of renewal, whether you’re a workout novice in need of flexibility or a disciplined disciple with a strict schedule. In fact, many classes are offered sequentially, assuring that guests become stronger and more skilled in several areas by week’s end.
Workout facilities are strategically placed throughout the property so that guests take the recommended number of daily steps (10,000, or roughly 5 miles) and host everything from weight-training to Spinning and Pilates. There’s also a running track, four lighted tennis courts and three swimming pools for popular aqua exercises. A large, quiet venue with a fireplace for talks and activities is among the most peaceful of all spots on property.
In addition to standard classes, the Ranch also offers a variety of special theme weeks. We’re here during Meditation Week, when the focus is on the quiet, contemplative practice alien to our Type A personalities. Yet we’re happily surprised by how much the practice resonates. With our plan of action in full swing, we also dive into classes like Release and Mobilize, Balance and Coordination, and Foam Roller. All address that which is, shall we say, neglected, back home: balance, mobility, core and posture. Exposure to these and other classes makes us aware of our own strengths and weaknesses. Enlightenment is, like many things we experience at the Ranch, an unexpected treat to take home. Knowledgeable instructors, especially the nutrition experts, offer sobering reminders that we are living in a world of processed foods. “Try to eat foods that your great-grandmother ate,” is a tip we hear numerous times, and though difficult to apply, it’s proved to be invaluable.
It might sound like the Ranch is only about hikes, workouts and wellness discussions, but skilled estheticians and therapists at its trio of on-site spas soothe sore muscles and take you to a perfect state of Zen relaxation. One spa is for women; one, for men; and one is unisex. Once again, we employ a general rule of thumb to embrace treatments and methodologies that are signature to the Ranch, such as the Japanese Restorative Facial and the Trigger-Point Healing Therapy. All the spas have indoor-outdoor spaces in which to relax, plus calming steam rooms, whirlpools and saunas. Most of the therapists and estheticians are cross-trained in several disciplines. Aromatic, medicinal herbs and other healing plants grown in the Rancho Tres Estrellas farm are used in treatments—purity is of the utmost importance here, and aids in balancing mind, body and spirit. The menu of spa therapies features nine types of massages; several body wraps (including the Ranch’s exclusive Herbal Wrap created by Edmond); body masks, polishes and showers; five types of facials; and full-salon services. New to the menu are four energy-healing treatments including reiki and Reconnective Healing, as well as a new line of organic skincare products for men that takes into account the biological differences between male and female skin. My brother’s 90-minute healing therapy session focusing on his shoulder proves to be a great precursor to a later acupuncture session, not to mention his restorative facial, pedicure and sports massage. I enjoy much-needed tension-relieving work, including reflexology, the Five Elements Treatment and a Xocolatl Skin Replenishment body treatment featuring freshly prepared products made with cacao.
And at a lecture given by Deborah, we learn what true inspiration looks like. Now in her 90s, Deborah is a living testament to the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle. “We provide the true luxury of time and space, that which is most lacking in today’s life,” she says. “Space to breathe freely, to relax and enjoy what will be the longer-living, younger life.” Not surprisingly, her pioneering husband laid the perfect foundation for such an endeavor, as he directed and learned from natural-living experiments worldwide. The teachings of the late professor, known internationally for his health and philosophical writings from the 1930s to the 1960s, live on at the Ranch. As does camaraderie among guests and instructors—so much so that on any given week, you’re likely to find 60 percent are return guests, and 20 or more guests are on their 10th trip or more to the Ranch, which speaks volumes. Predictably, our Ranch experience doesn’t end when the week does. As part of the Taking the Ranch Home seminar, guests write down their 30-day and six-month goals, place the slips of paper in envelopes and receive them in the mail later. Also offered is an online interactive program called the Ranch Circle, offering a wellness assessment, motivational emails and goal tracking.
Just one week at the Ranch is all we need to wake at dawn and start our day feeling great, healthy and ready to hike. Our workouts hit new heights while stress levels diminish. And unplugging? Easy and liberating. Not surprisingly, we’ve already been back to the Ranch—just one step closer to joining the 10-times club—and can attest to the success of their motto: “Always Better.” Weeklong packages from $3,900 per person for double occupancy include round-trip complimentary transportation from the San Diego airport, meals, accommodations and classes. Special rates and packages occasionally offered.
Consider a casita in the Flores West section of the property so you’re close to everything. Or come October, one of three new Villas Cielo.
Get to know the sprawling surroundings by taking the Ranch orientation tour.
On your first day, sign up for any activities that have a size limit, like the popular 4-mile Organic Garden Breakfast Hike.
Never miss the daily fruit smoothie at 2:45 in the afternoon.
Schedule spa treatments in the evening to allow more time for daytime classes. They fill up fast, so book ahead of time or the day of arrival.
Catch breakfast at the Villas pool for made-to-order omelets.
For dinner, order a combo meal and enjoy a taste of both entrees (two options are offered nightly). You can always order steamed vegetables for the table, and gluten-free muffins are available upon request.
Cook alongside a visiting chef in the hands-on cooking class, stealing taste-great secrets along the way.
Enjoy a glass of wine from the local wine region, Guadalupe Valley, while taking in the views at the lounge and wine bar, Bazaar Del Sol. The Bazaar is home to occasional art exhibits by some truly talented local artists and boasts a beautiful collection of regional art and handmade goods for sale as well.
The recently added Tierra Alegre juice bar offers cold-pressed juices and smoothies. The seasonal menu allows guests to enjoy a same-day-harvested made-to-order beverage with peak flavor and nutrition.